Destined to become a scientist
"I carry out research to find answers to questions that puzzle me
and because it's fun. However, as the point of research is to
generate wider benefits, the themes must be selected responsibly,"
"I couldn't see myself in any other profession than as a scientist," says Andre Ribeiro, whose teachers tried to persuade him to become a lawyer, an author or a historian.
Ribeiro is currently in his fifth year in Finland and leading an international, multidisciplinary research group at the Department of Signal Processing. The research interests of the group focus on natural selection and interspecific variation. They conduct measurements using a culture of E.coli in a wet lab that is presumably the only one in the world located in a department that focuses on signal processing. The wet lab's facilities are also used to teach students how to take biological measurements.
After completing his doctorate, Ribeiro was keen to pursue "real science" and everything it entails. He sent four emails to four leading scientists and offered to work for them. He got two replies, selected the one that came first and went off to study complex systems under the leadership of Dr Stuart Kauffman.
Ribeiro believes that the emails paid off for two reasons. First of all, he was interested in the research fields of the professors and proposed to explore a new avenue of research that was based on their earlier work. Secondly, instead of asking for money, he was asking for support to apply for research grants. For that he needed a project and a supervisor.
"I learned so much in the U.S. I learned to conduct research independently, formulate entire research projects in my head and evaluate them in terms of scientific quality and novelty value."
From visitor to permanent employee
"I first became curious about Olli Yli-Harja's Computational Systems Biology group, when researchers from his group came to visit my group in Canada. Yli-Harja invited me to TUT for a month-long visit."
After arriving at TUT, Ribeiro first pre-examined a dissertation and later landed a two-year employment contract.
"Yli-Harja gave me complete freedom, opened doors and helped me prepare grant applications. I asked if I could get a programmer to help me and got student Antti Häkkinen, who is still part of my team. I started out working by myself, writing one publication at a time and contributing to the emergence of a new research area at the University."
Why are we alike and yet so different?
"I believe that a multidisciplinary approach is a necessity in my field. That's why I've recruited researchers with diverse academic and cultural backgrounds to my research group."
E.coli is the workhorse of geneticists
The bacterium Escherichia coli, or E.coli for short, is a couple of micrometres or millionths of a metre long and the workhorse of genetics research.
Due to its rapid reproduction rate, E.coli is easy to grow and has thus become a model for understanding biological processes in more complex organisms. Gene expression is a simple process in bacteria, whereas in mammalian cells the number of regulatory mechanisms is considerably larger.
Andre Ribeiro's group is currently studying how fast living cells produce proteins and RNA molecules and how the molecules are organized within bacteria. The results will help understand why genetically identical bacteria behave slightly differently and produce a varying number of molecules during their lifetime.
In addition, Ribeiro's group is aiming to shed light on bacterial development and the emergence of dangerous strains. Their findings will help, among others, in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Ribeiro's group, made up of physicists, biologists, mathematicians and programmers, is currently exploring intraspecific variation, or why individuals of the same species differ from each other even though their DNA is almost identical, and the mechanisms underlying this variation.
The effects of external factors on cells and cell division are investigated using a biological system that is somewhat simpler than that of humans, namely E.coli. More than merely describing the biological processes found in the bacteria, the group is aiming higher. They are developing signal processing-based methods that enable the numerical representation of bacterial behaviour.
The hard-working group has recently produced a large number of publications.
"When inexperienced researchers join my group, I get them involved in scientific work and writing articles straight away. I give them assignments and responsibilities that I know they can handle. They learn by doing and by working alongside older colleagues and, as a reward, get their name in the publication."
Department of Signal Processing
Computational Systems Biology group